Virtual Assistant Ethics: What Do You Think?

I was contacted last week by the owner of a well-regarded training program for Virtual Assistants.

The owner is not a Virtual Assistant herself, but rather is an expert with an extensive background and expertise in the subject she teaches (exactly as it should be).

It had come to this program owner’s attention via a Google Alert that a new Virtual Assistant training/certification organization was offering a course with the exact same curriculum.

What was particularly disturbing to the owner of this well-respected, well-known training program is that:

  1. The listed instructor for the course at the new training organization is a current student of this program owner.
  2. This student/instructor is taking material from this program owner’s course and converting it to hers.
  3. This new training organization is charging $150 per class, so the four class series is priced at $600, almost exactly what the original program owner charges, which would lead people to believe they are getting something of value taught by an expert.

The student-all-of-a-sudden-turned-instructor in question is a new Virtual Assistant with no background or experience in the course she is now teaching.

What is also interesting and ironic is that the owner of the new training organization has posted in online forums that she would never pay anyone to learn this thing her own new training organization is now offering and charging for.

She stated she would instead do her own research and teach herself, the underlying sentiment seeming to be that she begrudges anyone charging for training, and she presumably thinks they should be doing it for free.

Funny how her thinking has miraculously changed now that it’s her own pockets the money goes into.

The program owner who contacted me about this is not only disturbed that this Virtual Assistant would take material in this way, but also concerned that unfortunate students won’t realize they are learning from someone who is not an expert, but has only taken a course herself–in fact, hasn’t even finished it at this point.

It appears the owner of the new training program didn’t bother to do any due diligence in hiring this instructor to ensure that students were being provided something of value.

One can’t help but wonder what other instructors were indiscriminately hired without any regard to background, qualification or expertise, and whether they might be using another person’s intellectual property as well.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. I know of several instances where this exact same thing has happened.

Besides the dishonesty and stealing, what also bothers me  is seeing new VAs who haven’t achieved any level of success or experience and expertise in their own businesses turning around and selling crap to their colleagues.

Why is it, I wonder, they can’t just concentrate on their own businesses? My guess is because it’s not easy growing a business and God forbid they should have to <gasp> actually work hard at anything.

So anyway, this got me to thinking about how much people understand about intellectual property.

Even outside of that, are there any basic principles of right and wrong that folks easily identify here? What do you think?

19 Responses

  1. This is absolutely & totally DISGUSTING. This person clearly was not a team-player in the workplace and probably stole from fellow colleagues & portrayed the work as their own. I believe every dog gets its day and a bulldog gets a weekend. People like this are NEVER SUCCESSFUL & will be caught out eventually. As new VA’s we all have to do the groundwork before our businesses can take off, there never has been an easy path to success. DISGUSTING!!!

  2. Angela Jordan says:

    This annoys me, because I am just starting my business. I stay up late night after night after night sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning working on my business. I am actually taking the time to self educate myself in order to enhance my current skills so I can be successful. The websites for VA’s are popping up all over the internet and I always question the validity of many of them. People who copy/paste to steal the intellectual property of another person should have their rights to computer access revoked wherever they sign on. I hate to hear that hard working VA’s like us have to constantly be on high alert because someone is always out to steal our stuff. Well, that’s, rant regarding this issue. I’ll get back to work now.

  3. I totally agree Angela. I live in South Africa & as a VA is still a foreign concept I’ve had to make the decision to go international. This means being up at 3am in the morning to attend webinars and 5am to attend telecons with my business partner. You still have to be awake @ 12am as it is still business hours in US but I’m looking forward to my hard work paying off as yours will. Thank God for gym. Happy New Year 2010, may it be fruitful & prosperous for you. Danielle has once again ROCKED, always @ the forefront to educate VA’s and put us on high alert to scammers.

  4. Mirna Bajraj says:

    Hi Danielle,

    Unfortunately, unethical people can be find anywhere, just waiting out there to catch honest people unaware of their cheats. But I agree with the idea of \you will get your payback\ sometime.

    I am a recently certified VA in Argentina, and it is worth to be aware of this kind of unethical people selling in the web what they have stolen from someone else. I am sure, our own effort and persistence will drive us to success, sooner or later. Other unethical shortcuts, are neither valid nor effective.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone.

    I feel it’s important for all of us to talk about these things out in the open. Our industry can’t grow with any kind of integrity and professionalism if we condone this kind of thing.

    So it’s important to have these conversations to not only raise awareness and educate those who are ignorant, but also to let the industry as a community make it known to those who are dishonest and unethical that it will not allow nor condone those things.

    And I tend to think about this stuff in big picture terms as well.

    People who engage in those things are not being good people. It really is as simple as that.

    When they steal from their fellow human beings, take credit for that which is not theirs, they do not contribute to the world in any loving way or make it a better place.

  6. As I love to say, “What goes around,comes around.” It will bite her in the butt someday.

  7. Gail Freel says:

    It is always bad when one person can give a whole group a bad name – one bad apple – just like only posting half of the story above – as there are ALWAYS two sides to every STORY. Good bed time reading though.

  8. Feel free to share the other side of the story, Gail.

  9. Gail Freel says:

    That was my point. I mentioned getting both sides of the story instead of just writing about one side of the story. Were you able to contact the person or persons involved? Did you do your due diligence before posting this?

    From your “Virtual Assistance Ethics Pledge — I will not intentionally partake in any activity, especially libel or slander, that could damage the professional reputation of another Virtual Assistant. AND — I will not engage in any activity or practice that would bring the profession into disrepute. ”

    Whether you have mentioned names or not, It would have been better for you to have written about how the solution went rather than slam a VA prior to gaining more knowledge about the situation

    Just my opinion…

  10. Let’s first be clear.

    You know and I know you are a friend of the Virtual Assistant who started the new training program.

    So let’s not cloud the issues here and pretend you are a disinterested, objective third party.

    Also, ethics pledges do not exist to give shadow and shelter to those who engage in unlawful or unethical behaviors.

    I speak the truth here and the Virtual Assistant community should be examining and discussing openly these kinds of ethical situations.

    It was the Virtual Assistant who unlawfully took another person’s curriculum and was prepared to utilize it for her own purposes who was unethical.

    And I have to tell you, anyone who opens a training program with “instructors” (I use the term loosely) hired willy nilly appears to be more interested in lining her own pockets and making money off her colleagues than offering anything of actual value and quality to anyone.

    But since you ask, I will add to the events that took place:

    Regarding the new Virtual Assistant who was hired to instruct the course while she is at the same time still undergoing training herself, she did email the program owner with an apology indicating that she didn’t realize what she was doing was incorrect.

    Personally, I don’t buy it. How anyone could think there wasn’t anything wrong with that is beyond me. You don’t have to know the laws to know when something is wrong. I feel quite certain she would have known it in a hot instant if the shoe were on the other foot. 😉

    As for the Virtual Assistant she was hired by to teach this course at the new training program, there wasn’t any apology to the program owner. She didn’t really acknowledge anything. She did take the course down from her site, but at the same time stated that “she would be teaching the X course with or without [Virtual Assistant].”

    There was absolutely no remorse or regret or apology indicated, no taking of any responsibility or accountability whatsoever.

  11. ….This is why I don’t feel “warm-and-fuzzy” about some of the certification sites that I have seen lately. Maybe its me. In my mind there is isn’t “one” clearly defined VA/VOA standards body. There are several organizations that state their recognition in the industry, but when you perform your due diligence, the names are unknown. So, I am a tad bit confused….

  12. Great article, Danielle. I’ve been a follower of your posts for some time now (though I admit that I’m a bit of a lurker – ☺) and this is a topic that is of particular interest and concern for me.

    I agree that this is a topic that needs to be discussed in the open and I urge all current and aspiring VAs to really make sure that they are protecting their intellectual property – most of us have to bootstrap our businesses in the beginning and this is one of the things that we overlook, but it’s vitally important to know how to protect ourselves from uscrupulous (sp?) “virtual assistants” who are just trying to make a quick buck without actually having to pay their dues.

  13. A New Training Program Instructor says:

    Unfortunately, there is no industry exempt from plagiarism and/or theft of ‘intellectual property.’ Yes, due diligence is certainly required on the part of anyone who is prepared to invest time/money in themselves/their business to verify that there is inherent value to be had. Industry recognition is not always a true guide but rather consideration of proven experience should be used as our touchstone of value.

    I normally stay out of public discussions regarding situations that I consider private. However, having signed up to be an instructor for the new training venture, I find that I do have a few comments I consider necessary to share…

    I am personally mortified and disgusted that such an obvious breach of ethics – attempting to pass off someone else’s work as your own – was so nearly successful. I know the new training director was extremely dismayed and upset that this was done to her and our program, as well as to the original and true author of the ‘stolen’ training curriculum.

    I, too, prefer to not pay others for training of anything I can learn by myself given time and effort. However, that does not mean that I don’t appreciate the fact that many people don’t do well when ‘self-taught.’ I mentor and share much of my knowledge for free, but don’t feel bad in charging reasonable fees to provide an extensive in-depth training in my area of expertise. I don’t believe that expressing the opinion of ‘why pay for it if you can learn it for free’ is contradictory at all to charging for that same training IF YOU ARE QUALIFIED TO PROVIDE IT.

    IMHO, it was/is not the new training director’s responsibility to apologize for the intellectual property theft by another person; why blame the victim for being lied to by the perpetrator? Unfortunately, anyone can claim that they know anything and, at first blush, often get away with it. I agree with Arlene that they WILL be caught eventually. I consider it a blessing that the Google Alert prevented the fraud from being perpetrated in an actual classroom setting and carried forward to the financial benefit of the thief. However, just because someone else taught this type of learning first shouldn’t preclude it being taught again by a different person, should it? (Again, assuming of course that the new teacher is qualified.)

    I am always dismayed by someone in our industry causing damage to our reputation as professionals, as most of us are, indeed, very professional. I hope that this type of situation will not only cause others to think twice before attempting to perpetrate additional fraud, but also be a reminder to us that we are responsible for our own reputation and behavior. It behooves us to remember the old adage “buyer beware” when considering spending our time/money/energy on any endeavor.

  14. I appreciate your contribution to the discussion, Lily. I do have to be honest that I view parts of it with quite a bit of skepticism. I have seen this thing so often that I can pretty much predict exactly how these folks will react, which includes rallying the troops. And lo and behold…

    I haven’t seen the new training organization owner exhibit any dismay. So far, all that has been seen is excuses and rationalization.

    Since I have no doubt you were sent here to post on the new training organization owner’s behalf, I’d be interested in answers to these questions from the new training program owner:

    1. The new training program owner is a new Virtual Assistant herself. Why does she think she can offer anything new/better than existing, established reputable programs?

    2. If she believed that no one needs a class like the one being offered (which she posted in the forum you both belong to), why is her program now offering one other than the fact that she now stands to gain some money?

    3. How could a training group knowingly hire a person with no credentials in the subject they were to be teaching (whose own website and public profiles state as much), and not for free eiether, but charging people hundreds of dollars for that class?

    4. You state it is not the program owner’s responsibility to apologize for the theft. Just what kind of responsibility does she take for her own program and the people she hired from whose efforts she hoped to profit from? Exactly what kind of due diligence and verifying of credentials/expertise was performed?

  15. E.J says:

    As someone trained in research and one who paid for a college degree, I find all these “certification” courses almost laughable. What does it mean exactly? That you paid money?

    I get that some people aren’t very talented in the realm of self-education and might sincerely value these VA educational programs on the web. But from my research that has been spanning almost 3 months now, I’ve seen an embarrassing amount of charlatanic antics this industry!

    I hate seeing this profession treated as some get rich quick scheme. That’s why I really love this site. VACC is the goods (with top rate web design – also rare in VA land). Thanks for keeping it real Danielle.

  16. A New Training Program Instructor says:

    Actually, I was NOT sent here by the training director – I regularly read your blog and simply recognized a situation of which I was somewhat cognizant.

    I must say I find it rather amusing that you assume I am part of “rallying the troops.” I will, of course, pass on your questions to her but, since my entire prior post was my own personal opinions, I will leave it up to her to respond on her own behalf.

    Speaking once again for myself, I invest in my personal education for me, not so I can try to convince potential clients that I know my job; I allow my background/experience/references to do that for me. I firmly believe that education should be part of a life-long commitment and not a means to add more letters behind my name.

    As I posted above, I also consider ‘buyer beware’ to be an important consideration when assessing where to best spend my education dollars. I firmly believe it is up to each individual to do their own ‘due diligence’ on their own behalf prior to spending money on ANYTHING, educational or otherwise.

    As a regular reader of your blog, I do appreciate your bringing this type of situation to the attention of those of us striving to maintain our business in an ethical manner so that we are aware of some of the abuses rampant in our industry.

    My high ethics are also why I felt it necessary to ‘expose myself’ as one of the trainers involved ‘on the fringe’ of the situation rather than allowing others to assume I was simply responding based on reading your original post. And again, as stated earlier, I normally stay out of public discussions of private matters. So I know you will understand why I will end my postings on this subject at this point.

  17. I’m not sure why you keep referring to this kind of situation as private.

    The training program in question has not been identified.

    It’s also not a matter of privacy when a fraud is being perpetrated on unsuspecting consumers.

    Are you saying ethics situations should never be discussed and should be swept aside and buried under the rug so that no one is ever the wiser.

    Likewise, how can an individual do their own due diligence when they are misled into believing an organization has done proper due diligence in hiring instructors with established, verifiable expertise and experience?

    You are making excuses for this program, which absolutely shares responsibility and culpability in this kind of situation. How was this person selected? Was a cattle call put out to instructors and any ol’ person was hired who said they fit the bill? How did this person get hired to instruct when her website and other public profiles indicate she is a student herself with no background or experience in this thing she was hired to instruct and was in fact still a student in someone else’s program?

  18. New Training Program Owner says:

    Greetings,

    In an effort to set the record straight, I am [the owner of the new training program].

    I have be an online VA and online Entrepreneur for more than 11 years. So, to say that I am new is incorrect. Just one of many facts that have been incorrectly stated on this blog.

    I understand that your friend emailed you about the infringement of her materials. But what you are failing to post here is that there was no use of those materials and a course was never instituted with those materials nor is a course being offered using said materials. So, in fact, there was no infringement, as I stopped it from occurring prior to the courses beginning.

    As for your questions, I will not answer as I am not here to help you continue on with bashing our instructors and new venture.

    Our program does not hire anyone. We contract well known and very qualified virtual assistants to teach other virtual assistants. This is the same practice used by many state universities and community colleges.

    Certifications are not the goals of the program. The goal of the program is to help those learn new skills in order to add new services to their existing business or to learn how to become a virtual assistant.

    Our program is the only online learning center that uses virtual assistants to teach other virtual assistants.

    I have requested that none of our instructors post to your blog. But, some of them felt they were being slighted by your original post insinuating that you feel I contracted the lowest of low VA instructors.

    I personally uphold my own ethics and standards and have and will never allow anyone in my business(es) to intentionally or unintentionally slander, infringe upon, or perpetrate a fraud against a client, student, entrepreneur, and other business. If caught doing so, I will immediately cancel their contract, as I did with the VA in question.

    As you grow in your business you will run into all types of people who are not so ethical – who will convince you that they are the best in their field of expertise. This includes sending you false information.

    It is up to each and every one of you to make sure you are doing the right thing by your business. Follow up on references, which we do, and make sure that the subject matter matches the content.

    I hope this post helps those who are confused about this particular situation.

  19. You really don’t get it, do you?

    You are still failing to get the whole point of this discussion–that a reputable, ethical program would screen instructors.

    If that didn’t happen with this one instructor, it is very reasonable and rational for anyone to wonder who else wasn’t screened or vetted and if there are other courses being taught using another person’s or program’s intellectual property.

    Since you commented, I do want to address a few points in your reply:

    1. If you have been a Virtual Assistant for 11+ years, why is it that there isn’t any evidence of that prior to 2009? It’s so easy for people to hide behind their computers and pretend they’ve been doing something longer than they actually have.

    2. Since you are not an attorney and would appear to not otherwise have any other legal experience or qualification, I want to point out to you that you are incorrect when you say that no infringement occurred. The material was up on your site. You only removed it. It was the right thing to do, but simply removing it from the site does not automatically negate infringement.

    3. It’s unfortunate that you won’t answer the questions posed as they are perfectly legitimate concerns.

    4. You state that your program only hires well-known and well-qualified Virtual Assistants to teach other Virtual Assistants. That certainly wasn’t the case here or we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. This VA was neither well-known nor qualified and was only a student herself. Her own bio indicated as much. So again, I ask, how did this occur if you say you hire only well-known and well-qualified instructors? No one is saying all the instructors are bad. The point is that you seem to abjectly refuse to take any responsibility. And if there is no screening process in place, how can you say you only hire well-known, qualified VAs? Thus, it is perfectly reasonable for people to wonder, if this one wasn’t screen and vetted, who else wasn’t either. If it’s your program, who else is responsible for taking those steps and knowing those things?

    5. I have worked for colleges myself and come from a long line of academics. Colleges and universities put people through a process of making sure they really have the credentials they say that do. They require proof of degrees and recommendations from those who the instructor has worked for before. They don’t make the excuse that “they don’t have employees, they just contract with people” so they are not responsible for the quality of the instructors and whether they are qualified or not. Since a college charges the student, it is their responsibility to know whether they have a qualified instructor.

    6. I’m not sure what planet you’re living on, but yours is not the only nor the first training program to be offered by Virtual Assistants for Virtual Assistants. This kind of statement really serves to underscore the idea that you are really new to the industry.

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